Now that Myanmar is opening up to the larger world, more tourists are expected to arrive at ancient Bagan, the ancient monument-studded capital. This article explores the tension between what is thought to be shoddy restoration work to the monuments (“against archaeological principles”) and local attitudes to restoration (“living heritage”) at this spectacular site.
Experts scoff at the contention by Burmese officials that most reconstructions were faithful. Pierre Pichard, a French academic who made regular visits to Bagan in the 1980s and ’90s to catalog its structures, says most “repaired” temples were not rebuilt according to their original form but were modeled after one of a few temples that remained intact. “The result is terrible uniformity,” he says. Sun Oo, vice president of the Association of Myanmar Architects, says that such shoddy refurbishments resulted in many sites having “no historical, architectural or artistic value.” Indeed, UNESCO, citing the prevalence of inauthentic restorations, declined Burma’s 1996 application for Bagan to join the World Heritage list.
But many lay people in Burma, a Buddhist-majority country where religion plays a prominent role in daily life, see the crude refurbishments not as desecration but as practical updates to accommodate Bagan’s function as a living and breathing pilgrimage site. Mahabodhi Paya, a 13th century temple, for instance, includes a number of the contemporary amenities that trouble conservationists. Though its pyramidal tower is well preserved, its interior floor is covered with modern tiles and carpet, and its altar is adorned with neon lights. The tiles and carpet are more comfortable than the original sandstone to walk and kneel on, and the lights “make it easier to concentrate on Buddha,” says Than Maung, a 75-year-old local man who prays there most days.
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